Women’s Employment and the Decline in Marriage Are No Longer Related

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

For a few decades, women’s rising share of the workforce probably led to fewer women getting married. But that’s not the case anymore.


It is common knowledge—and true—that marriage rates are falling and unmarried parenting is becoming more common (nicely illustrated here). On the other hand, it is also common knowledge—but not true—that women’s employment rates have continued to rise in the last two decades (as illustrated here.)

In the long run of history, there is little doubt these trends are related: As women’s economic independence increased with better job opportunities, marriage became more optional and fewer women got (or stayed) married. But in the medium run, on the scale of a few decades rather than long eras, it’s not that simple.

Here are the trends in marriage and labor force participation for women using U.S. Census data going back to 1900.


Source: My analysis of Census data from IPUMS.

In the long run of the past 111 years, there certainly are more employed women and more single women. But the trends only moved strongly in the same direction for the three decades from 1960 to 1990, when the percent of women not married more than doubled from 18 percent to 43 percent and the percent in the labor force almost doubled from 41 percent to 76 percent. In the last two decades labor force participation has frozen while the percent not married has jumped another 7 points.

Here is the trick: Despite the real connection between non-marriage and employment—in which women don’t feel as strong a need to be married if they are employed—the lion’s share of rising employment has been among married women. Women’s employment opportunities made non-marriage more viable but also changed marriage. As the employment rates of married and non-married women grew more similar, the decline of marriage has made less of a difference to the total employment rate. Moving women from married to single doesn’t do much anymore. Here are the employment trends:


The American Stall
So we need to understand the stalled rise in employment because it may be the key to understanding progress toward gender equality generally.

In a previous post I suggested that stalled progress resulted from feeble work-family policy, anti-feminist backlash, and weak anti-discrimination enforcement. A recent analysis by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn lends support to the first: work-family policy. Economix writer Catherine Rampbell highlighted the paper, which tracked employment rates over 22 wealthy countries for two decades. During that time, U.S. women fell from sixth to 17th in labor force participation rates—rising just one percentage point while women in the average country increased 12 points.

Here are the labor force participation rates for the 22 countries for 1990 and 2010. Dots to the left of the blue line show countries where women’s labor force presence increased; dots to the right show decreases. At the extreme, for example, Ireland saw a jump from 45 percent to 72 percent.


Source: My chart from the Blau and Kahn paper.

What happened? One big change was the advance of several work-family policies. The average number of weeks of guaranteed parental leave increased from 37 to 57 in these countries, with the U.S. adding only a 12-week rule under the Family Medical Leave Act (covering only half the workforce). The average country on this list now provides a guaranteed 38 percent of parents’ wages while they’re on leave, while the U.S. provides none. Seven of the countries now protect a right to part-time work, and three-quarters guarantee equal treatment for part-time workers. Public spending on child care as a proportion of GDP increased by more than a third outside the U.S., and the average country now spends more than four-times as much as the U.S.

Together, based on the experience of these countries, Blau and Kahn estimate these changes account for more than a quarter of U.S. women’s slippage relative to other countries. That’s not everything, but it’s a substantial bite. If we had kept up with the average country’s policies, U.S. women would have had an 82 percent labor force participation rate, putting them at 11th on the list instead of 17th.

On the Other Hand
Not all work-family policies are the same. One way to divide them is between those that protect time out of paid work (parental leave, part-time protections) and those that protect time in paid work (especially state-supported childcare). As Blau and Kahn note, U.S. women have much lower rates of part-time work than those in most other rich countries, but we also have higher rates of women in professional and managerial jobs. That might be because employers in those countries are reluctant to hire or promote women who are expected to take time out of the labor force when they have children—which is exactly the goal of some of our low-fertility peer countries. How, and whether, such policies can improve family life while also promoting gender equality is the subject of a rich debate—which unfortunately remains in the realm of the hypothetical here in the U.S.

Gender discrimination bills ranked

With the news that Tom Harkin, the Democratic senator from Iowa, is retiring, I’m reminded of the sorry state of congressional legislation against sex discrimination.


Please correct me if you think I’m wrong, but my reading of the three recent bills ranks them like this, from least to most important:

3. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. This changed the Civil Rights Act to reset the statute of limitations every time a discriminatory paycheck is issued. It undid the pernicious Ledbetter Supreme Court case, which interpreted the law to start the clock with the first act of discrimination.

  • STATUS: Signed by President Obama, used as the symbol of his dedication to “putting the law behind the principle of equal pay for equal work.” But it didn’t address the biggest problems in the law, which still permits different pay for equal work, just not identical work (with the same job title, in the same establishment, in some cases).

2. The Paycheck Fairness Act. Hillary Clinton used to sponsor this while she was in the Senate. It would narrow the “exception to the prohibition for a wage rate differential,” which is described as “closing loopholes” in the law. I can’t tell how much of a difference that would make, but I heard smart lawyers say it would help. It would also prohibit retaliation against employees in some cases and strengthen class action protections.

  • STATUS: 36 Cosponsors in the Senate and going nowhere fast.

1. The Fair Pay Act. Introduced regularly by Sen. Harkin, most recently in 2011. “Most importantly,” according to Harkin, “it requires each individual employer to provide equal pay for jobs that are comparable in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions.” Where current law makes it next to impossible to sue for discrimination when men and women have separate job titles, this bill would make employers defend their pay differences across different jobs, held by men versus women, to show the pay gap was justified. This is the scariest of the lot for employers.

Without Harkin, we may not even get the symbolic re-introduction of the Fair Pay Act each session.

Unfreedom update: 2010 incarceration stats

I can’t teach my course on family sociology without these graphs, which show the rise of the unfree population, and the incredible race/ethnic and gender disparities behind them.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released Correctional Population in the United States, 2010, which updates my standard figures. First, the total trend toward unfreedom in the population — from less than 2 million in 1980 to more than 7 million 30 years later:

And second, to understand the disparate impact of this change on Black men in young adulthood primarily — and secondarily, Latino men — here are the rates of incarceration for men by age and race/ethnicity (Blacks here exclude Latinos; Asians and American Indians are not included in the statistics):

Just to make sure you read the scale right, that incarceration rate for Black men in their early 30s is 9,892 per 100,000, or 9.9%, or one-in-ten — more than five-times the rate for White men.

I come at this largely from its effects on families. In a nutshell: The overall trend is largely a consequence of how the U.S. has waged its drug war over this period; these policies fit into a web of practices that deny families to millions of people in the U.S. (only a minority of whom have been convicted of crimes), including by simply removing men from communities and increasing the number of single-parent families.

All that said, you may notice the little decline at the end of that long upward trend in the first figure. In fact, for the first time since 1980, there has been a decline in the incarcerated population for two years running. There has been a long-term decline in crime, but I don’t know whether that is more important than the budget crises facing so many states, or the diminished lust for locking people up. In New York, for example, seven incarceration facilities were closed in the last year, after the number of prisoners dropped about one-fifth in the past decade:

The inmate decline followed a 25 percent statewide drop in crime over the past decade and revisions in sentencing laws that allowed earlier releases and alternative programs for nonviolent drug offenders. The number of prisoners in medium-security prisons declined almost 20 percent from 2001 to 2010 while those in minimum-security facilities dropped 57 percent.

The numbers on the charts are still off the charts, meanwhile — and remember these are just those in the system now. Many more people (and their families) live lives permanently hampered by criminal records and the experience of imprisonment.

Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood: Time for some results

Many sociologists say that more marriage — or, to avoid the implication that they support bad marriages, more “healthy marriage” — would reduce poverty and improve the lives of poor children.

Who says sociologists have no impact? Partly relying on the work of these researchers, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars — from the welfare budget — for the Healthy Marriage Initiative and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.

Has it worked? It’s too easy to simply point out that marriage rates for young adults without college educations have fallen at an accelerating pace since these programs began. What about the solid, scientific program evaluation data that really looks at the hundreds of millions spent and rigorously tests its impact on program participants?

I’m not an expert on the Government Accountability Office, but this 2008 report doesn’t look good. It uses a lot of phrases like “lacks mechanisms to identify and target grantees that are not in compliance,” and “currently lacks uniform performance indicators and a computerized management information system.”

Still, its promise for future research is optimistic:

HHS has established a rigorous research agenda to gauge the long-term impact of healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood activities on diverse, low-income populations. … Studies such as these often are difficult and take time to complete, but are considered the best method for assessing program impact. Results from these studies will not be available until after fiscal year 2010.

2010 review concluded the jury was “still out” on whether marriage and relationship classes can actually help poor couples. But the fiscal year 2010 ended in September 2010, I think, so this rigorous research must now be in the pipeline. As of this writing I don’t see any here on the Fatherhood site, but I found some on the Healthy Marriage site.

Building Strong Families

The major report is an eight-city study of more than 5,100 couples in Building Strong Families (BSF). They used an “intent to treat” research design in which half of the unmarried (or married-after-pregnancy) new-parent couples who applied for the support program were given services while the other half were not. The experimental group got things like relationship skills education, a family support coordinator and referrals to supportive services. The participants were an at-risk bunch — half African American, two-thirds not high school graduates, half with a child from a prior relationship, average couple earnings about $20,000. After about 15 months, they followed up.

This is the main finding: Nothing.

There is an individual program report from Oklahoma’s Family Expectations program, one of the BSF sites, which found couples were no more likely to be married or living together 15 months later — but they were a little more likely to be still be in a romantic relationship. On the other hand, the BSF report shows that there were negative effects of the Baltimore program site. There, program couples were less likely to be romantically involved, less supportive and affectionate, had more assaults, worse co-parenting relationships, and lower levels of father involvement.

I would like to see a third group in the studies, in which the program applicants are given a good job but no marriage support services.

My initial assessment: waste of money, pending future research.*

*There may well be more research out there on this I’m not aware of. Feel free to offer references or suggestions for followup in the comments.

Is it a “marriage problem”?

A self-described liberal (Andrew Cherlin) and conservative (W. Bradford Wilcox) pair of academics have produced a “policy brief”* for the Brookings Institution entitled, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America.

There’s no new information or analysis in the report, so I won’t dwell on it. But I’d like to use it to point out a logical problem with pro-marriage social science in general. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, with my comment following:

This policy brief reviews the deepening marginalization of marriage and the growing instability of family life among moderately-educated Americans: those who hold high school degrees but not four-year college degrees and who constitute 51 percent of the young adult population (aged twenty-five to thirty-four). … [b]oth of us agree that children are more likely to thrive when they reside in stable, two-parent homes. … Thus, we conclude by offering six policy ideas, some economic, some cultural, and some legal, designed to strengthen marriage and family life among moderately-educated Americans. … To be sure, not every married family is a healthy one that benefits children. Yet, on average, the institution of marriage conveys important benefits to adults and children. … The fact is that children born and raised in intact, married homes typically enjoy higher quality relationships with their parents, are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law, to graduate from high school and college, to be gainfully employed as adults, and to enjoy stable marriages of their own in adulthood. Women and men who get and stay married are more likely to accrue substantial financial assets and to enjoy good physical and mental health. In fact, married men enjoy a wage premium compared to their single peers that may exceed 10 percent. At the collective level, the retreat from marriage has played a noteworthy role in fueling the growth in family income inequality and child poverty that has beset the nation since the 1970s. For all these reasons, then, the institution of marriage has been an important pillar of the American Dream, and the erosion of marriage in Middle America is one reason the dream is increasingly out of reach for men, women, and children from moderately-educated homes.

It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead?

This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math. And the same holds for marriage.

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? Is there any other way to help people develop high quality relationships with their parents, complete more education, get better jobs, accrue financial assets and maintain good physical and mental health?

In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.

*I’m not sure, but I think a “policy brief” is a blog post about policy matters, produced on the PDF letterhead of a foundation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As far as I can tell, this one is a non-peer-reviewed essay which handles sourcing like this: “the findings detailed in this policy brief come from a new report by Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America.” As I’ve pointed out (here andhere), Wilcox’s reports at the National Marriage Project are also non-peer-reviewed essays with a lot of substantially misleading and erroneous content.













Breastfeeding promotion here and there

We have just concluded another annual World Breastfeeding Week, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a new report on how well hospitals are promoting breastfeeding. The results show progress in the direction of public health objectives, but the distribution of services is very unequal. Here’s the background:

Childhood obesity is a national epidemic in the United States. Increasing the proportion of mothers who breastfeed is one important public health strategy for preventing childhood obesity. The World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative specifies Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding that delineate evidence-based hospital practices to improve breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity.

The CDC did a survey of obstetric hospitals and birth centers in 2007 and 2009, and found progress on some of the Ten Steps (click on the image to read the labels):

Just as compliance on the Ten Steps is uneven, so too is the percentage of births at the top-rated “Baby-Friendly facilities” by state:

The CDC estimates that 4.5% of all U.S. babies are born at “Baby-Friendly facilities.”

Finally, the CDC report is linked to a Report Card for states, which shows how well each state is doing in terms of breastfeeding outcomes, as well as “process indicators,” which measure some of the policy supports in place in each state, such as child care center regulations, state health department workers tasked with promoting breastfeeding, and the number of lactation consultants.

To look under the cultural hood a little, I loaded the national Maternity Practices in Infant Nutrition and Care (mPINC) scores for each state into Google Correlate to see what Google searches are most highly correlated with breastfeeding success and failure at the state level. The Google tool gives the 100 most correlated searches, and they are mostly cooking terms, including 8 references to Martha Stewart or Julia Child, Epicurious, and highbrow recipes like “pumpkin lasagna” and “asparagus prosciutto.” So, that’s kind of fun to know but not really useful.

Surprisingly relevant, however, was the high prevalence of searches for “Nutrition Action” and “Nutrition Action Healthletter,” which both were correlated at .84 or higher with the mPINC scores across states. That is a newsletter put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which actively promotes — among other things — breastfeeding policies intended to improve health and nutrition. Here are the maps showing where mPINC scores are higher and more people Google the Nutrition Action Healthletter:

This does not mean the relationship is causal, of course. But it appears that the places were CSPI resonates are also those that do a better job of promoting breastfeeding. Hopefully, this will further motivate the social science of search behavior.

Anyway, as I noted last year, breastfeeding rates are strongly associated with the race/ethnicity and education level of mothers:

This may be because of working conditions or other demands on time, mothers’ health, or other factors — but it might also reflect the failure of public health and education programs to inform many mothers about the importance of breastfeeding and support their efforts to breastfeed. Public health promotion of breastfeeding can help extend its health benefits, but to do that will require sustained state-supported efforts.

Do explicit, enforceable policies matter?


The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart case, Justice Scalia acknowledged that Wal-Mart’s many local managers had a lot of discretion in their personnel decisions, even though the company had a written policy against gender discrimination (who doesn’t?). But he gave the company credit for a vague policy and let it off the hook for a systematic pattern of disparity between men and women. So, when does a toothless, vague policy over wide discretion lead to a bad outcome, and is failing to prevent it the same as causing it?

A path-breaking sociological analysis of organizational affirmative action outcomes has shown that the companies that successfully diversify their management are most likely to have policies with teeth – where accountability is built into the diversity goal. In light of the Wal-Mart case, this led to a rollicking debate about how to think about “corporate culture” versus policies, and when to blame whom, legally or otherwise – which even divided sociologists.

Smoking in the movies

Here’s an interesting, at-least-vaguely related case. Positive depictions of smoking in the movies are widely understood to be harmful. Yet, smoking is also glamorous, artistic, and popular – representing both anti-adult rebellion and maturity. So, what to do? The Centers for Disease Control, in the always-riveting Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, has published a fascinating report on this topic. They report the number of tobacco incidents* in top-grossing, youth-rated (G, PG, PG-13) movies, and divide them between those that implemented an anti-tobacco policy and those that didn’t — helpfully cutting the movie industry roughly in half — and provide a simple before-and-after tabulation:

From 2005 to 2010, among the three major motion picture companies (half of the six members of the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA]) with policies aimed at reducing tobacco use in their movies, the number of tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie decreased 95.8%, from an average of 23.1 incidents per movie to an average of 1.0 incident. For independent companies (which are not MPAA members) and the three MPAA members with no antitobacco policies, tobacco incidents decreased 41.7%, from an average of 17.9 incidents per youth-rated movie in 2005 to 10.4 in 2010, a 10-fold higher rate than the rate for the companies with policies. Among the three companies with antitobacco policies, 88.2% of their top-grossing movies had no tobacco incidents, compared with 57.4% of movies among companies without policies.

The difference is dramatic, as indicated by this image about the images. (Because I turned the columns into cigarettes, this is not just a graph, but an infographic):

The policies provide what may be an ideal mix of accountability and responsibility, short of a simplistic ban.

[The policies] provide for review of scripts, story boards, daily footage, rough cuts, and the final edited film by managers in each studio with the authority to implement the policies. However, although the three companies have eliminated depictions of tobacco use almost entirely from their G, PG, and PG-13 movies, as of June 2011 none of the three policies completely banned smoking or other tobacco imagery in the youth-rated films that they produced or distributed.

Maybe this formula is effective because there already has been a strong cultural shift against smoking — as strong, even, as the shift against excluding women from management positions?

Graphic addendum (disturbing image below)

Whether smoking in movies actually encourages young people to take up smoking is of course a not a settled issue — especially on websites sponsored by tobacco sellers, as seen in this ironic screen-shot from Smokers News:

One reason to have an explicit policy is that it’s easy to assume viewers will see through the glamour to the negative outcomes. “Surely no one will want to be like that character…” But people – maybe especially young people? – have an amazing capacity to celebrate selectively from the characters they see. I have learned from experience that, in children’s stories, even those who get their comeuppance in the end still manage to emerge as role models for their bad behavior. So maybe some people want to relive this from Pulp Fiction…

…and aren’t put off by this:

*”A new incident occurred each time 1) a tobacco product went off screen and then back on screen, 2) a different actor was shown with a tobacco product, or 3) a scene changed, and the new scene contained the use or implied off-screen use of a tobacco product.”

Family consequences of the drug war

The drug war @ 40.

Forty years and 40 millions arrest later, some reflections and protests against the policy. In family research, the effects of mass incarceration have gained greater attention in the last 10 years. Because of the concentration of imprisonment by gender, race/ethnicity and age, the family effects are particular to the groups involved. Here’s a graph, then some suggested research:

Source: My graph from Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Here are three papers that cover different aspect of the issue:

1. Incarceration in Fragile Families, by Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western in The Future of Children.

…the effects of this sea change in the imprisonment rate … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children.

2. Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families, by Amanda Geller, Irwin Garfinkel and Bruce Western, in Demography.

Because most men in jail and prison are fathers, a large number of children may be placed at considerable risk by policies of incarceration. … Both cross-sectional and longitudinal regressions indicate that formerly incarcerated men are less likely to contribute to their families, and those who do contribute provide significantly less. The negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children. Men contribute far less through child support (formal or informal) than they do when they share their earnings within their household, suggesting that the destabilizing effects of incarceration on family relationships place children at significant economic disadvantage.

3. Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage, by Christopher Wildeman, in Demography.

Results show the following:

  1. 1 in 40 white children born in 1978 and 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  2. 1 in 7 black children born in 1978 and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  3. inequality in the risk of parental imprisonment between white children of college-educated parents and all other children is growing; and
  4. by age 14, 50.5% of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a father imprisoned.

No-leave policy’s long-lived effects

Human Rights Watch has produced a report on how the lack of parental leave hurts US families.

Rather than just a compilation of statistics, this report includes interviews with a few dozen people, with vivid descriptions of how working parents and children suffer when work-family policies let them down. Here is one vignette:

Diana T. was 18 and worked full-time at a large retail store when her first daughter was born. Her manager was unhappy about her pregnancy, and forced Diana to pick items off the floor late in her pregnancy, even if other staff was available to do so. Diana took a six-week leave with no pay when her first daughter was born since her employer did not allow her to use accrued sick pay. She had a nine-week leave when her second daughter arrived: six paid at 60 percent of her salary (of less than $30,000 per year), and one paid in full through accrued paid time off. Diana fell into credit card debt and had trouble paying rent during her unpaid leave. She also needed two surgeries shortly after the second birth. She requested, but was denied, a week off to heal and returned to work three days after surgery. Lacking a space at work to pump, Diana breastfed her first baby for two months, well short of the four to twelve months she had originally hoped. Diana had post-partum depression after both children, but especially after her first baby, who was ill. Diana’s employer regularly threatened to replace her if she took time off for the baby’s frequent medical appointments and often switched her to night work, which was especially difficult for her as a single parent. Diana went without health insurance for more than a year, and was therefore never treated for her depression.

There is a nice compilation of policies for many countries in an appendix, too.

Healthy family leaves